Archive for the ‘Professional Learning’ Category

Silverton’s silver lining

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

I had a chance to catch up recently with Tony Bryant, principal of Silverton Primary School in Victoria. If you’ve been reading bluyonder for a while you’ll know that I’ve visited Silverton PS over several years.  I believe Tony is one of this country’s most innovative school leaders and as he would tell you, their overnight success story has only taken twenty years of relentless focus.

The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors is that change is happening constantly.  This isn’t change for change sake but change as a result of continuous improvement, feedback and reflection.  There is an obvious passion for learning both at student and teacher level.  The teachers I spoke to tell you that it is an absolute pleasure to come to work each day; to be a part of a collaborative and committed team of professional educators.  This cannot be sustained without strong leadership. Silverton is a partnership between Tony, his staff and their students.

John Hattie talks about visible learning and teaching and that is exactly what is happening at Silverton.  Students take ownership of their learning, they set their own goals and articulate their learning so by the end of the term they can plot where they need to go next.  This does not happen without a high level of trust and respect.

Stephen Heppell always makes the point that when students are engaged in their learning we see how ambitious they can be.  What we sometimes forget is the central role, indeed the responsibility of teachers and of course leaders, to make sure that students are engaged because engagement is an imperative for academic achievement.

Despite the entrenched educational practices and mindsets of a century and more, Tony and his team have turned learning and teaching on its head.  It hasn’t been achieved with bucket loads of money but with a belief in students’ ability, a passion for learning and regular evaluation. Silverton PS isn’t the only school where this is happening and happening well but to see the theory in practice and to see students becoming their own teachers is after all this time still pretty awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making time for great teaching

The latest Grattan Institute Report, Making Time for Great Teaching, by Dr Ben Jensen is a must read for educators. In an age of teacher over-load and increasing external accountabilities, Jensen presents the case for removing the distractors so that teachers can spend more time on the things that really matter.  He argues that if schools reduce the number of staff meetings, school assemblies, extra-curricular activities etc then critical time can be devoted to proven school improvement practices. Jensen and his colleagues worked with six schools across the country to enable more time for intensive mentoring, observation of practice, collaboration and school-based research.

Schools must make difficult but crucial trade-offs in how teachers and school leaders spend their time. We must be explicit that every time we ask teachers to perform extra activities we are decreasing the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

Last week at the National Catholic Education Commission annual meeting in Canberra, my colleagues and I met with a number of Members of Parliament. It was an opportunity to further impress the need for politicians to focus on what is really important in the work of schools.  Many priorities and procedures are often assumed to be mandatory when they are mere accretions. Jensen makes the point that

Government regulations restrict schools. Enterprise bargaining agreements restrict changes to work schedules, and duty of care requirements restrain schools that want to free their teachers from child minding to focus on improving teaching.

Ultimately, the responsibility for making time for great teaching lies with individual school communities but the Grattan report shows what is achievable when we focus on what matters most.

Pondering the questions

We’re edging towards the end of the year; a time of when bold predictions are often made about 2014.  I’m not good at reading the tea leaves but I have been pondering some of the big questions over my morning cup of tea regarding where to next for schooling.

At a local level our focus is on building teacher capacity.  All the research we have shows that successful schools have instructional leaders working with effective teachers to improve learning for each student. We continue the work by doing the work, learning from the work and remaining focused on the work.  Always easier said than done but our data shows that change is happening in across schools and that is encouraging.  We don’t often thank our teachers enough but they are education’s bread and butter.

Professionally, social media continues to inspire and challenge my thinking and it proves just how diverse and impressive the online networks are. William Ferriter and Nicholas Provenzano wrote about social media in terms of their own professional learning in Kappan recently saying “the relationship that develops between blog writers and their regular readers is symbiotic.  Writers publish thinking designed to challenge their peers, and peers push back in the comment sections of posts….Over time, this intellectual give-and-take strengthens the understandings and professional relationships between authors and their audiences.”

Thanks to those who posted comments this year on bluyonder for the intellectual give and take – it has sharpened my focus.  And so next year brings new challenges and new opportunities but until then these are the questions that I have been pondering….

  1. How can we better connect parents into the learning and teaching experience of their children (greater collaboration)?
  2. What are the key elements of a contemporary assessment framework for student learning and teacher evaluation (student performance)?
  3. Are there different ways of thinking about school day (ie. not face to face)?
  4. Is it possible to benchmark learning and teaching internationally (going beyond PISA)
  5. Can quality schooling be delivering in a time when education funding is shrinking in real terms?( doing more for less)
  6. How do we change teachers’ beliefs and attitudes?(can the paradigm change)

I look forward to engagement around these and many similar questions and the challenge of seeking answers as a profession.  I remain very positive about  where we are in terms of schooling and I think it is a great time to be an educator. The opportunities we have to enhance student learning and to learn about our own practice is enough to keep us motivated and focused. I continually see students achieving great things and teachers doing extraordinary work.  Let’s aim to make this the norm not the exception.

Merry Christmas and roll on 2014!

Best evidence is the best policy

My colleague in Melbourne, Stephen Elder wrote an excellent piece in Saturday’s Australian newspaper on the ongoing Gonski saga and the need for both sides of politics to engage in the real issue of public policy.  I hate to harp on about this but I can’t believe that politicians continue to get bogged down in debates over whether phonics should replace whole-language.  These are issues to be addressed within school communities not in Parliament.

As I’ve said many times before, the challenges facing education in Australia (ie. improving the learning outcomes for each student) need to be addressed with coherent policy not ideology or nostalgia.  Improving the quality of education by lifting the performance of teachers does not require a bi-partisan approach here.  The approach simply needs to be rigorous.

Political parties will always agree to disagree but the best public policy is based on best evidence. I’d like to see our Education Minister Christopher Pyne remain focused on what really matters:-

  1. Quality of the teacher
  2. Quality of teacher learning to improve capabilities
  3. Precision around the implementation of learning strategies
  4. Core focus on improving literacy and numeracy
  5. Improving the quality of relationships
  6. Evidence of continuous improvement

What appears to be missed in discussions around education policy is an overall commitment to best evidence.  The things that divide us should not be the things that actually improve the learning for every student.  Best evidence is the best policy here and as Sir Ken Robinson points out education doesn’t go on in legislative buildings, it happens in schools and if you remove the discretion of teachers, then the system stops working.

 

Mindsets

I’ve finished reading Carol Dweck’s seminal book, Mindsets. Dweck dedicates half of Chapter 7 to exploring what makes a great teacher.  It’s powerful reading because it illustrates how pervasive the messages students receive in classrooms are in reinforcing ‘fixed’ mindsets about intelligence.  Dweck writes “great teachers believe in the growth of intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”Woody all Tied Up

John Hattie makes reference to Dweck in his work and expands on the notion of mindsets, which should underpin all decision making at schools.  In Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie presents eight for teachers/leaders.

Dweck admits that teachers who have fixed mindsets create ‘an atmosphere of judging’ – they decide very early on who is worth the effort and who isn’t.  Growth-minded teachers enable students to reach high standards by identifying strategies and giving feedback.  It is a continuous challenge-feedback-learning loop in action.

Dweck astutely captures what great teachers do – they see teaching as a way to learn about themselves, their students, the world.  She concedes that fixed minded teachers see themselves as ‘finished products’ whose role is simply to impart knowledge.  One is focused on learning, the other on teaching.

Hattie expands on this in Mind Frame #3.  He says in relation to professional development, the focus “should be about the impact of our teaching. And while you could argue that this mind frame is a bit strong because of the emphasis I place on learning rather than on teaching – this might suggest we should have learning colleges, not teachers colleges.  I want to get away from debates we have about teaching.  Not because teaching isn’t important – it’s too strong to say it’s not, of course – but it’s wrong for it to be the one and only focus.”

After reading Dweck and Hattie, I am even more convinced that the industrial model of schooling (and teaching) is based on a fixed mindset.  Everything is planned, packaged and pre-judged.  There is no space for just in time learning and or improvised teaching.   Hattie says we adopt this teacher-centred stance because of what we’ve been taught – create a lesson, plan an activity. This model unfortunately perpetuates the fixed mindset about student intelligence and learning.  In theory, a contemporary student-centred model of schooling should be rooted in the growth mindset.  And that requires growth-minded teachers and leaders.

Hattie admits that we don’t ask teachers to come into the profession because they are expert problem solvers or apt at improvising, we ask them to teach because they are ‘willing to adopt a traditional mode of teaching. It requires them to have a particular way of thinking about what their job is, and this perspective can actually diminish improvisation and ingenuity.”

The big question is how do we change teachers’ mindsets?  How do we move from fixed to growth, from sages to activators?

What Dweck’s research shows is that it is possible to think differently and when we think differently about our students, we are in a stronger position to teach differently.  To quote Hattie, “teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we can have some control.”

The new prophets

capngownI had the great honour of being invited to deliver the Occasional Address last Thursday at the graduation ceremony for the University of Western Sydney School of Education.

As someone who grew up in western Sydney and now leads a system of schools here, I have seen its transformation from an outpost to a dynamic, diverse and prosperous region.  As former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote recently, Sydney’s west reflects the “Australian spirit of frontierism”. Higher school retention rates and mass university access have given the sons and daughters of the region a crack at professional jobs and entrepreneurship.”

Growing populations, prosperity and the aspirations of families has resulted in growing demand for quality education in the school and higher education sectors.  Our commitment to innovation and excellence is echoed by UWS and there are some exceptional examples of cross-sector partnerships such as the Nirimba educational precinct.  This is a consortium of the Western Sydney Institute of TAFE, University of Western Sydney, NSW Department of Education and Communities and Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta. The campus provides diverse learning pathways for students whether academic or vocational.

It’s not only the landscape of western Sydney that has changed over the last three decades – the educational landscape has also changed.

When I was at university in the seventies, I trained as a history teacher but my first job was as an English teacher in a western Sydney high school.  Being fresh out of university I was concerned that I wasn’t a trained English teacher but the English master basically told me everything I needed to teach was in the English syllabus.  If I didn’t deviate from it, I’d get through the syllabus and so would my students.  We accepted the idea of teaching as delivering the curriculum and the notion that knowledge was absolute. Students were marked on their ability to remember and recall facts without ever questioning the what and why.

My message to the graduates was that as someone who has spent more than three decades in education, I can honestly say this is an extraordinary time to be a teacher.  And never before have we needed great teachers than we do today.  We have learned a lot about teaching – we have moved from an understanding that intelligence is fixed (ie some students just can’t learn), teachers’ work is isolated and a one size model fits all to an understanding that all students can learn, reflective practice is critical and personalised learning is the norm.  These aren’t as Kevin Donnelly recently argued progressive fads or edutainment but the result of contemporary theory and research.  We know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences.  We also know that the more we learn about learning and the more teachers learn about student learning, the more important and influential teaching becomes.

These graduates walk into learning spaces with the benefit of research, theory and technology; a focus on explicit and deliberate teaching; a commitment to ongoing professional learning and a recognition that as critical thinkers and curriculum designers they have a critical role in school improvement.  Teachers become better critical thinkers and collaborators, when they are engaged in the practice of critical thinking, inquiry and collaboration on a daily basis.  Without doubt, there have always been good teachers in classrooms but the difference in a connected world is an expectation of effective teachers in every classroom.

I asked fellow educators on Twitter last week what advice they would give beginning teachers. When you distil the wisdom of experienced teachers, you end up with four key characteristics of good teachers: being passionate about your work, being life-long learners, building quality relationships and listening to students.

It’s often debated whether today’s teachers are mediators, designers or co-constructors. The truth is teachers are all of these and more.  They respond to individual learners and learning needs in ways that continue to challenge the mind, stretch imaginations and improve learning outcomes.

What I wanted to impart to the graduands is that teachers are our 21st century prophets.  Just as biblical prophets were advocates or agents of social change, our teachers are transforming lives and ultimately shaping the future of nations.

The science of learning

Fortunately we now know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences and while there is still more to learn and uncover, it helps us become more effective in our teaching. As a system here in Parramatta Catholic schools, the work of John Bransford and John Hattie has helped shaped our understanding of learning, teaching and most importantly, teacher learning.

The role of neuroscience in learning and teaching was the theme of this year’s ACER research conference in Melbourne.  By all accounts it was outstanding particularly John Hattie’s keynote.  There is no denying the significance of contemporary theory and research on the work we do. For too long we have accepted personal preference and experience instead of intellectual rigour. The science of learning needs to influence the practice of teaching.

For a psychometrician, Hattie’s work is easily digestible and after listening to a vodcast of his ACER keynote, I was inspired to re-read Chapters 7 and 9 in Visible Learning for Teachers.  I felt compelled to re-calibrate my educational compass.

Hattie’s makes the compelling point that we don’t go to school to learn what we know but what we don’t know. So why then are we teaching kids 60% of the things they already know?  It comes back to knowing where each student is and being able as teachers to identify where they need to be.  We’re not good at this because as Hattie says we make erroneous assumptions about students and their learning.

In fact, he believes we are novices when it comes to continually monitoring learning in progress.  This the power of feedback and it needs to be seen as a necessary disruption.  Why? Because it forces students to slow down, to process and think.  Slow thinking is stressful for students especially those who are struggling.  The message we have to impart is it is OK to stop, to think and to take risks.  Our schools are risk averse environments – we don’t often know when to hit the pause button and ask students to stop and think about what they are doing.

This is why Singapore’s approach to learning has merit. The goal when Singapore adopted a minimalist curriculum was as the then Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in The Flat World and Education to “give students themselves the room to exercise initiative and to shape their own learning.” The goal for Singaporean teachers is to get students to accept that it is OK working with unanswered questions.  It calls for a slow thinking movement in schooling.

Door to skyWhat Hattie found in his Visible Learning work was that we are stunningly good at predicting outcomes therefore students set low benchmarks. Our job according to Hattie is to ‘create schools that help kids exceed their own potential’.  We will never imbue confidence unless we make every child believe they can do better than they are already doing.  This is why feedback is so critical because it “aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where he or she is ‘meant to be’ – that is, between prior or current achievement and the success criteria.” (VLFT Chapter 7).

One of the most powerful statements in Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers is the notion that feedback thrives on error but

error should not be considered the privilege of lower-achieving students.  All students (as all teachers) do not always succeed first time, nor do they always know what to do next. This is not a deficit, or deficit thinking, or concentrating on the negative; rather, it is the opposite in that acknowledging errors allows for opportunities.  Error is the difference between what we know and can do, and what we aim to know and do – and this applies to all (struggling and talented: students and teachers).  Know this error is fundamental to moving towards success.  This is the purpose of feedback.

I should write this on my office window along with we go to school to learn what we don’t know.  We have underestimated the power of feedback in helping every student to identify where they go next; in moving them up the ladder of learning and success.  Our job as Hattie explains is to be able to give good feedback and to teach kids how to receive it and articulate back to teachers what and how they are learning.  This is why instructional walks are centred on the students and not the teacher.  We gauge the effectiveness of teaching through the eyes of students.  Hattie’s mantra is know thy learner….know thy impact.

As we begin to consider our system focus in 2014 and beyond, I am drawn to the point Hattie makes in Chapter 9 about losing interest in discussions about teaching.  He says it’s not because teaching isn’t important but it often ‘prevents important discussions about learning.”

I’m convinced that learning has to be the profession’s new narrative.

‘Connected’ learning

Canadian principal George Couros spent last week sharing his  ‘connected’ learning with our teachers and leaders.  Several school leaders said they felt ‘inspired’ after hearing George talk so passionately about his students, profession and his professional learning.

The workshops with George and our Principals Masterclass may look like ‘stand-alone’ or ‘one-off’ events but they are actually part of a learning continuum that began seven years ago.  The mere fact that our leaders have an opportunity to collectively engage in deep conversations on learning is powerful learning.

At the start of the 2012 school year, we set our collective focus to ‘learning by inquiring’ – how we could engage in the inquiry and knowledge building cycle within schools and across the system.  It builds on the work of Helen Timperley by responding to the emerging needs of ‘our class’ – whether it be school leaders, teachers or learners.  It requires a commitment to engage in continuous learning through collective problem solving and data analysis to improve the learning outcomes for each student.

PMC-98For me, the principals masterclass was a high point in this journey to improve learning and build capacity.  When we started we relied heavily on outside experts but last week we had our own leaders sharing their learning.  Although the context of the school communities may be different, there is a shared vision that transcends physical and virtual borders.

As I listened to the keynotes, three things became clear.   The first is we are beginning to get the language right – we are crafting a new narrative shaped by the best of what we know when it comes to improving learning and teaching.  The second is we are developing greater precision around the work by getting rid of the ‘noise in the background’.  We are focusing on the things that make a difference – the high effect strategies to drive change where it counts most.  Thirdly after listening to our school leaders, we are now seeing tangible evidence of building teacher capacity and its impact on student engagement and learning.  It’s starting to make a difference.

All of this leads into new areas for discussion and new ways of working but we are doing this together.  In the past we’ve “intellectualised” the process of improvement but ignored the implementation process.   Competing narratives haven’t led to sustainable change – the discussion was broad and shallow.  Yet what I saw and heard last week was a significant shift at the point of delivery – system leaders working with school leaders working with teachers – everyone as George said ‘elbows deep in learning.’

If there is one thing that resonated with me when listening to George it was the importance of modelling the what, how and why of what we do.  It challenges us to lead in the way we ask our leaders to, teach in the way we ask our teachers to and learn in the way we ask our students to.

Metacognition and the digital age

I spent Monday in masterclass so to speak at the ACARA national roundtable on curriculum for the 21st century. The roundtable was an opportunity to hear from international experts and educators in the context of how we are responding at a national and local level to the rapidly changing world and how jurisdictions are responding to, and planning for, the nature of schooling in a contemporary world.

thinkerIt was good to see ACARA looking over the horizon as we move our focus from implementing practicalities to imagining possibilities. Charles Fadel from the Center of Curriculum Design delivered an fascinating keynote on how we pursue depth of understanding in today’s world. He began with examples of the exponential rise of technology and how it is both a source of disruption (see Dan Pink chapter in Whole New Mind on abundance, Asia and automation) but also huge possibilities.

The challenge then for schooling is how do we keep up with technology given the rapid growth we are witnessing? Fadel warns about falling into the trap of playing catch up because we never will be able to, a fact that he demonstrated so profoundly. We should let the race to catch up distract us from the core issue, that is how to construct relevant learning experience for young people.

We know that what we have been teaching isn’t relevant to today’s world but the assumption is that we need to revisit what we teach. What are the things that could be taught that are of value today?

Fadel suggests subjects like journalism, entrepreneurship, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, robotics and 3D printing but he warns that it’s not an argument between teaching STEM or humanities. Both are equally important in today’s world. Employers don’t want employees with knowledge or skills – they want both.

Interestingly the SMH ran an OpEd piece today examining whether the supply of university graduates exceeds demand in a world of MOOCs and off-shoring.  The piece referred to OECD figures showing the number of young people without work globally has risen by 30 percent since 2007.  The author goes on to say that:

Many professions have outsourced the training of young people to universities, expecting the higher-education sector to provide ready-made graduates who can step into corporate jobs. Heaven help our teenage and graduate recruitment markets if economic growth deteriorates, companies more aggressively cut costs, or new technologies lead to some graduate jobs disappearing. It would be an economic and social catastrophe to have so many young people sit idle.

We know the stakes are much higher today than they ever have been.  The demand on learners is great and even greater on schools and education systems. We also know that we must bridge the gap between what is taught and what is actually needed. But who decides on what is needed or relevant? Who defines the curriculum and are students part of the design process? These are questions  we must answer but I don’t believe we have defined the elusive ‘we’ yet?  Are students part of the design process?

While I don’t have all the answers, I liked Fadel’s response to the question – what is the role of a teacher in today’s world?  To teach children how to learn.

Teaching the educators

Jal Mehta, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote recently that we “have an almost endless list of things that we would like the next generation of schools to do: teach critical thinking, foster collaboration, incorporate technology, become more student-centered and engaging. The more skilled our teachers, the greater our chances of achieving these goals.” Building teacher capacity is both a school and system responsibility.

The role of the teaching educator in our system is similar to what Michael Fullan refers to as coaches.  They are experts in literacy and numeracy who work with the lead teacher to plan, model, observe, reflect and challenge with the intent of improving the learning outcomes of all students.

In the early days the arrival of a TE in schools was often met with resistance and in some cases, their expertise was under utilised.  Over the past few years we have worked tirelessly to articulate and communicate the what, why and how of the TE in schools.  Their role is not to obstruct schools but to build instructional capacity.  The focus shifts from building individual capacity to community capacity.  Once we build community capacity, our schools will be able to link into an ever bigger system of inquiry, learning and knowledge.

We now understand that the most powerful way of building capacity is in situ, in context around the real problems and challenges that arise on a daily basis.  Previous models of withdrawing teachers from their context and transmitting information did little to improve their practice and only served to further frustrate them.  The best approach is to learn the work by doing the work and having someone that you can share and reflect with.  I think teachers respond well to the immediacy and collegiality of this approach.

In 2011, Michael Fullan and Jim Knight wrote an article titled Coaches as System Leaders.  They state that if “teachers are the most significant factor in student success, and principals are second, then coaches are third.  All three, working in coordinated teams, will be required to bring about deep change.”

Some may call it the power of three – we refer to it as the instructional triad (TE, principal and lead teacher) or the teacher-learning triad (teacher, lead teacher and TE).

Our TEs are an important part of our system strategy to improve the learning outcomes of all students and ensure a professionally rewarding working life for teachers.  The how and why of their work represents a shift in education from “I know to we learn” and success for some learners/schools to success for all learners/schools.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,399 other followers